Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Inspires Me: Finding the Wisdom Beyond the Clichés

Citing inspirational quotes as the source of actual inspiration is a little trite. It doesn’t help that there is something of a cottage industry in inspirational quotes, spewed by self-help gurus answering your plea for re-invention with short sentences containing words of one syllable.
Seize the day. Be all you can be. The best revenge is massive success. OK — that last one,attributed to Frank Sinatra, is pretty cool.
Sinatra’s admonition isn’t one that I live by, but the truth is that I am inspired on a daily basis by three wise observations I picked up at various times in my life. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t invoke one of them when I am stumped, irked or confused. And not once has one ever proven false.
My favorite is also the shortest, and most powerful:
Any problem can be solved with the materials available in the room. —Edwin Land

Dr. Land was the inventor of the Polaroid camera, a highly disruptive technology for instantly creating prints of the picture you just took decades before the digital age, a time when getting your film developed (Google it, kids) could take a week or more.

First, it is eternally optimistic — any problem can be solved, Land asserts as fact. This is powerful all by itself; the path to success begins with the belief that success is possible. This is why you can improve at a sport just by watching it played well: Experts give you permission to believe what you didn’t think possible.
But then Land lands the coup de grace: All the answers to solve any problem are at hand. I first assumed this was metaphorical. But I can’t count how many times I have actually found a physical thing I could use to solve a problem in the room at the time.
How is that possible? There won’t always be nail in the room when you need a nail. It’s true because this is about imagination: When you need a nail, you may think only a nail will do.
Think harder.
Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth
When working on a problem, I never think about beauty; I only think of how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know that it is wrong. — R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky (as friends called him) was a designer so ahead of his time he might have been a space alien. In fact, his best known innovation, the geodesic dome, could easily have come from another planet.

Like any great thinker, not everything Fuller dreamed up made sense. But his approach to problem solving required a remarkable test: Even if the solution seems correct, it can’t be if it isn’t also beautiful.
Build, fix, iterate. That’s the startup mantra. As I once heard Sequoia Capital partner Greg MacAdoo put it at Stanford’s Startup School:
“Don’t wait for the perfect first product. Get it out there and iterate.”
“There can be no great surfers without great waves.”
The best kind of problem is the “hair on fire problem.” Best part of solving it: the hose doesn’t have to be real good. It just has to put out the fire.
Those calls to action are great to get started. But iterating means taking a dim view of what you’ve already done. Of not declaring victory until your work is “beautiful.”
What is beautiful? You know it when you see it. More importantly: You know when you don’t see it.
Help Me, Help You
The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. — Colin Powell
I saw this quote on a wall at The Basic School, the boot camp for US Marine officers in Quantico, Virginia (I was part of the initial Media Boot Camp contingent of potential journalist embeds training for the not-yet-declared Iraq War. As it happened, I was not deployed).
Powell had long left the military and was Secretary of State. But this quote was vintage Gen. Powell, shared in his autobiography, My American Journey. No accident that it was in a narrow hallway that could not be missed by the school’s captains-in-training.
Powell’s observation is the epitome of self-deprecation. It’s more than The-buck-stops-here pablum or axiomatic I’m-responsible-for-everything drivel. It means that when there is failure to communicate, the top person is the problem.
Even if you don’t have direct reports you are in plenty of relationships that are inherently asymmetric. There is a power imbalance between a parent and child, and between you and company interns. You may think they know they can come to you with any problem. But if they aren't, I’ll bet it’s not because they don’t have any.

John C AbellSenior Editor at LinkedIn | Ex-Wired | Founding Editor,

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